Take a Hike Into the Ice Age on This National Scenic Trail

Since the 1950s, conservationists have been working to save Wisconsin’s ancient geology, one mile at a time.

Credit: Photo: Joshua Mayer/Flickr

My husband and I are following tusked woolly mammoths through Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest. White elephantine markers direct us along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail where its southeastern leg dips close to the Illinois border. As I walk by boulders and along ridges, I think about how, if I had been here 20,000 years ago, I might have come across a real mammoth.

The six-ton behemoths roamed this stretch of the Midwest when the habitat was decidedly different. This spot was once the border of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which stretched from Washington to New Jersey until the Wisconsin Glaciation ended some 20,000 to 11,000 years ago. As this massive expanse of ice advanced and retreated, it carved hills, lakes, potholes, caves, gravel ridges, and bluffs into the earth, giving the landscape north of this trail a complete makeover. Where I stand is the southern edge of the glacier’s reach into Wisconsin.

Model of a woolly mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada.
Credit: Photo: Flying Puffin/Wikimedia Commons

Two lobes of the ice sheet met here. As they melted, braided streams ferried rocks and sediment farther south. When we take in the view atop Bald Bluff, we see mile after mile of flat farmland studded with barns to the west. The fields were once the bed of Lake Scuppernong, a body of water thought to be as big as two counties, now long gone.

Wisconsin is the best place in the country to get a sense of the earth-moving force of the last ice age, which also helped shape the terrain of other northern states from Montana to Pennsylvania. Some of the ice sheet’s impacts, however, have proved not so permanent. In the middle of the 20th century, as development, mining, and farming began covering up what the ice left behind, conservationists in Wisconsin began crystalizing a plan to protect the area’s unique geology along with the stories that it tells.

Skunk Lake, a glacial pothole lake along the Ice Age Trail.
Credit: Photo: Joshua Mayer/Flickr

Kettle Moraine has had hiking trails since it became a state forest in 1937. But a mountain-climbing lawyer named Ray Zillmer, who grew up in nearby Milwaukee, thought the hiking paths could be a part of something much bigger—a linear preserve that would trace the glacier’s edge through the state. “Visionary is the only word you can use to describe him,” says Mike Wollmer, director of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, a nonprofit that helps protect and maintain the trail. In 1958 Zillmer created the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (now the Ice Age Trail Alliance) and penned a letter to the National Park Service. A few months later, the regional head of the NPS came out to see what Zillmer was raving about and spent several days there. In the following years, Wisconsin Representative Henry Reuss began proposing bills to designate a hiking path as a ribbon of national park.

Zillmer died of a heart attack before he could see the Park Service create nine Ice Age National Scientific Reserves in 1964. The reserves, which are scattered throughout the state, weren’t the 500-mile trek Zillmer had imagined, but it was the start of a conservation project that is still in the works more than half a century later.

A map of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
Credit: Source: USGS

Volunteers kept working to build a trail between the reserves, making agreements with private landowners when possible. In 1979, James Staudacher became the first hiker to walk the whole 1,200 miles along what had been the glacier’s terminal moraine. The next year, the federal government created the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Only a couple hundred miles long at the start, the trail has grown longer over the decades. While the pace of protection has been, well, glacial (only four thousand acres have been added since 1980), nearly every year the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sets aside more land. Last February the trail grew by six miles, bringing the total to 653.

Starting in Interstate State Park to the west and ending in Potawatomi State Park to the east, the trail passes towns along the way, meandering through ice-etched wilderness and modern-day communities. A million people visit the trail every year. One minute a hiker could be pondering a lake, and the next minute staring down a racetrack.

The government and the Alliance plan to keep carving out parcels of earth, slowly and steadily, to preserve the area’s natural history. As Zillmer once said, “We spend millions to go fast. Let’s spend a little to go slow.”

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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